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THE LANDMARK ANCIENT HISTORIES

Andrew Hamilton


Landmark Ancient Histories editor Robert B. Strassler No group of people can hope to regain control of their destiny unless they possess two essential things: the will to survive as a people, and knowledge. The reader who seeks to have a well-guided will must have an unshakable sense of identity: an understanding of who he is and his relationship to the world around him.

This can come only from a broad knowledge of the history of his people. He needs to know their most distant origins, their characteristics, their strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which they differ from other peoples.

 

Choosing books that provide such information presents problems of choice and evaluation. Is a given book about history or race or politics worth reading? When several choices are available, which is the best? Some books are essential to a basic understanding of the task facing us as a people. Others are important, but primarily for filling in details.

The Landmark series reviewed here consists of essential works. They are the best of the several versions of each title available on the market in English.

Robert Strassler, the founding editor of the Landmark Ancient History series, is a “scholar without credentials”—a retired Jewish businessman who doesn’t read Greek or Latin or have a tenured job at a university, though after retirement he somehow landed a gig teaching ancient Greek literature in translation at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts.

Strassler had been introduced to the classics at “Fieldston,” described as a “prep school in the Bronx.” Fieldston is a curious anomaly—a wealthy, privately-owned neighborhood in New York City. Presumably the institution referred to is the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an exclusive Jewish prep school. To peruse a list of some of its prominent, wealthy, and powerful alumni, see here. Later, as an undergraduate at Harvard, Strassler “pestered the deans into assigning him a former Oxford don to tutor him three hours a week in the history of ancient Greece.” He then graduated from Harvard Business School and joined the family business.

Although some sources say he headed a Tulsa, Oklahoma oil services company (originally purchased by his wealthy father) for 20 years, he said in a talk that he bought and turned around (or, presumably, dismantled and sold) failing businesses, which is what his father did also.

After he retired, Strassler thought teaching classics in translation would be easy, that he already knew everything he needed to know. But he quickly discovered that he could barely keep up with his lectures. He also observed how his students struggled with the material—and perceived the reason why.

This gave him the idea for a new approach to publishing the ancient classics with much more explanatory material, and he drew up a proposal outlining his vision. Unable to enlist qualified academics to do the work, he finally put together his own sample edition of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War with roughed-out maps, margin notes, an index, and list of appendixes.

Despite his lack of academic credentials, Strassler was able to interest Lithuanian-born Yale neoconservative professor Donald Kagan, an expert on the Peloponnesian War, in his project. Kagan, 82, who retired in 2013 but still teaches, ranks extremely high in the Yale hierarchy. The Left-wing Institute for Policy Studies notes that “Alongside scholars like Victor Davis Hanson, Kagan is one of several rightist [sic: neoconservative] hawks who specialize in classical literature.” He is also the patriarch of an influential Jewish neoconservative family whose members are powerful cheerleaders for US-backed war and revolution in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Kagan’s sons are well-known Establishment activists Robert Kagan and Frederick Kagan. Robert’s wife is Victoria Nuland, US State Department spokesman from 2011 to 2013 and current Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. She famously said “Fuck the EU” when maneuvering for revolution in the Ukraine to harm Russia. Frederick’s wife is Jewish militarist Kimberly Kagan, who has taught at West Point, Yale, Georgetown University, and American University, heads the Institute for the Study of War, and shapes US policy through influential media organs and by working as a high-level military adviser to top field commanders. (And it pays well, too!)

After Donald Kagan introduced Strassler to his book agent, Simon & Schuster’s Free Press agreed to publish the work. Strassler’s editor at the Free Press was Adam Bellow, son of Nobel Prize-winning Jewish novelist Saul Bellow. As editor, Adam Bellow has been instrumental in the publication of such books as Indian author Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991), homosexual author David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story (1993) (Brock has since become a Leftist and founder of Media Matters for America, a self-appointed policeman of politically incorrect speech), and Richard J. Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994).

Strassler perceptively notes that although existing editions of ancient works

may present skillful translations from the Greek, [they] make little attempt to provide sufficient background information required now by the general reader in order to comprehend these ancient texts. These editions contain only a small number of often inadequate maps, sparse indexes, incomplete (and sometimes incorrect) chronologies, and few if any helpful appendices.

The Landmark Thucydides (1996)

It is easy to cite examples of why the Landmark approach is so necessary. Here is a sentence from Herodotus about a man named Gelon, a tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily: “An ancestor of Gelon had come from the island of Telos, which lies off Triopion, and he settled at Gela, for he was not left behind when Gela was colonized by Antiphemos and the Lindians who had set out from Rhodos.” (7.153) Without external aids, this does not convey much meaning.

Again, describing events in pre-Roman, Greek-settled southern Italy:

Much later, the Tarantines attempted to expel them [Messapian Iapygians, originally from Crete] from these [cities] but were badly defeated. In fact, the men from both Taras and Rhegion suffered such a crippling disaster here that this was the greatest slaughter of Hellenes that is known to us. The citizens of Rhegion had been forced by Mikythos son of Choiros to go to the aid of the Tarantines, and 3,000 of them died. Under such circumstances, there was no count taken of Tarantine losses. This Mikythos was a servant of Anaxilaos, who had left him behind and entrusted Rhegion to him, and he is also the same man who, after being exiled from Rhegion, settled in Arcadian Tegea and dedicated those numerous statues at Olympia. (7.170)

It is helpful to know where all of these places are. After writing the above lines, Herodotus concludes in his characteristic manner, “What happened to the Rhegines and Tarantines, however, is parenthetical to my narrative.”

This is not to imply that Herodotus is a difficult writer; on the contrary, he is exceptionally clear. But most of the individuals and places he discusses have no meaning to modern readers. A translation I own by George Rawlinson contains no textual aids whatsoever—not even the most rudimentary ones. You can imagine how difficult it is to struggle through something like that. There is no way to really understand what you’re reading.

Useful insight into Herodotus’ monumental achievement is provided by a simple question posed by Professor Donald Lateiner in his Barnes and Noble edition of The Histories: “Imagine that all written, audio, video, and electronic records have been destroyed, yet you want to write a history of World War II or the Vietnam War. How will you go about it?” (p. 514). Moreover, The Histories is far, far more than a war book. The vast scope of the text historically, geographically, ethnographically, and in terms of time-depth is staggering—not to mention the fact that Herodotus was the first to do anything of this kind.

If you have any interest in reading and truly comprehending the Father of History, this is definitely the volume to buy. A review of it was published on Counter-Currents in 2010.

Strassler regards the maps as among the most important contributions of the series. Except for the Landmark Thucydides, the authority for them is the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Richard J. Talbert, ed. (Rutgers, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2000). Strassler writes:

Every known city, town, shrine, river, mountain, or other geographic feature that appears in the narrative is referenced in the text by a footnote to a nearby map or, in some cases where the site is tangential to the plot, to a reference map at the very end of the book. Those maps which display many labels employ a simple coordinate system to help readers search for particular sites. In the interest of clarity, each map displays the names of only those features that appear in the surrounding text. If the location of a place is unknown, the footnote says so.

The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories (2007)

With a few exceptions such as the Black Sea (called the Euxine Sea by the Greeks), or well-known places such as Athens, most modern names of cities, rivers, and so forth, are not provided. For the series’ general Key to Maps see here. For a sample map from Book Nine of Herodotus’ The Histories click here.

Beginning at the top you have the most-encompassing map, with a square designating the more detailed inset map just below it. Scale lines in the bottom left-hand corner of each map designate relevant distances in kilometers and miles.

The maps occur every few pages, shifting to fit the geographic area being discussed. I use a plastic-covered paperclip projecting from the side of the book to mark the one I’m on, because it is necessary to flip back and forth every page or two from the footnotes identifying place names and geographic features in the text.

In a lecture, Strassler gave an amusing example of how useless most maps contained in modern editions of ancient works are by displaying a sample of one from another book and pointing out why it was so inadequate. I checked the map in my Barnes and Noble edition of Herodotus (not the one he was referring to) and it had all the failings he mentioned. It’s odd how you can be aware you’re experiencing shortcomings in a presentation causing barriers to comprehension without being explicitly conscious of exactly what the problem is until it is explained to you.

An extremely useful chronological outline of events in each book is presented at the beginning, enabling readers to obtain a quick overview of historical dates, places, passages in the text, and short descriptions of each event in a single line. For example, in Arrian: Autumn 336 – MACEDONIA – 1.1.1-3 [the book section] – Philip II is assassinated, Alexander becomes king. This scheme is repeated in the running heads at the top of each page, informing readers where and when the action is taking place and enabling the fullest possible comprehension.

Extensive footnotes, appendices on specialized topics pertaining to the text, modern photographs, illustrations, margin notes, glossaries, indexes, bibliographies, and other aids round out the supporting framework of each book without, believe it or not, excessive clutter. One cannot, of course, read them like novels—they require work—but one can at least read them with near-complete understanding.

Strassler’s first volume, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (1996), a detailed description of the mutually destructive war between Athens and Sparta in 431–404 BC by an Athenian general who participated in it—published, as mentioned, with the help of Yale’s Donald Kagan—was a comparative hit. It reportedly sold 30,000 copies in hardcover and more than 40,000 in paperback. According to Forbes, Strassler then “scored a big advance from Pantheon, using that money to fund a classics factory, of which he is chief executive officer.”

The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika (2009)

The Greek writer, historian, soldier, mercenary, and student of Socrates Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC) is known for writing histories about his own time. Though Athenian by birth, he identified and closely associated with the Spartans, among whom he lived for many years. Hellenika is a principal source for the final seven years of the Peloponnesian War not covered by Thucydides, and the war’s aftermath. It is considered a continuation of the History of the Peloponnesian War. Hellenika has also been translated into English under the title History of My Times.

One critic’s observation about the Introduction to Hellenika by David Thomas is worth quoting:

The lengthy and informative Introduction suffers from its frequent reliance upon recycled, stale accusations about Xenophon’s “bias” and “prejudice,” especially as causes of certain allegedly “startling” omissions in his text, and hyperbolic speculation about his “Grinding of Axes” (xlvi–lvi) or lack of “Trustworthiness” (lxiii–lxv). A more even-handed, less querulous Introduction to the Hellenika would help readers to engage and understand this work on its own terms, especially if the activity of intellectually earnest reading is predicated on not presuming to know better than the author what he should, or should not, have written. To conclude, as the author of this Introduction does, that Xenophon is unreliable “as a historian,” because his account “fails to accommodate much of what seems obviously important to us,” reveals much more about the preoccupations and prejudices of certain modern “scholars” (“us”) than it does about Xenophon.

Xenophon’s most famous work, Anabasis, slated for future publication in the Landmark series, was based on his youthful participation with a group of Greek mercenaries in the campaign of Cyrus the Younger to claim the Persian throne from his brother King Artaxerxes II.

When the ill-fated enterprise failed, the commanding officers of the Greek mercenaries were treacherously murdered by the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. Xenophon was among the new officers chosen to command the Greek force of 10,000 men now stranded leaderless in the heart of the hostile Persian Empire. Assuming responsibility for the retreat, Xenophon led the men to safety in the ancient Greek colony of Trapezus (now Trabzon, Turkey) on the Black Sea, a 1,500-mile march lasting five months through unknown territory against disheartening obstacles of terrain and weather, savage enemies, and failure of supplies. Their triumphant survival is attributed largely to Xenophon’s resourcefulness, foresight, and tact.

The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (2010)

Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus) (c. 86–160 AD) was a Roman-era, ethnically Greek officer, governor of Cappadocia in Asia Minor under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and historian who hailed originally from northwest Turkey. His Landmark volume, sometimes known in English as the Anabasis of Alexander (not to be confused with Xenophon’s much earlier Anabasis just discussed), is probably the best and most complete extant ancient account of the vast military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Among other authorities, it relies on the writings of two of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy I and Aristobulus, for its data.

Arrian wrote his classic account of the 11-year Macedonian campaign against the Persian Empire, beginning with the invasion of Persian Ionia and ending 3,000 miles to the East at the Indus River in India, nearly five hundred years after the death of the conqueror. In a review of The Landmark Arrian, the fanatically pro-Israel, neoconservative, philo-Semitic professor Victor Davis Hanson (also a contributor to the Landmark series) wrote:

Alexander posed as the emissary of a civilizing Hellenism as he killed more Greeks—whether besieged Thebans or mercenaries in the service of Darius III—than had perished in the earlier invasions [during the Persian Wars described by Herodotus] of Darius I and Xerxes combined. Yet, as proof of his literary flair, he spared the house of the poet Pindar, while killing 6,000 Thebans, enslaving another 30,000, and leveling the great city of Oedipus.

In multicultural fashion, Alexander arranged mass marriages between his Macedonian soldiers and Iranian women, incorporated Persian elites in his administration, and deferred to the conquered by wearing native dress—even as he had executed or murdered his closest associates, Parmenio, Philotas, Cleitus, and the philosopher Callisthenes, and wiped out entire villages in serial fashion while pacifying Afghanistan.

Those accustomed to thinking of ancient Greece and Persia in dichotomous East-West, Europe-versus-Asia, Greek-Barbarian terms will be surprised in reading Herodotus, Xenophon, and Arrian to discover how many Greeks allied and fought alongside the Persians—even against their fellow Hellenes.

One reviewer commented that thanks to the unique editorial aids in Arrian’s book “we can ‘watch’ the route of Alexander’s campaigns, as if progressing step by step with his army—from Europe, through Asia to India and back to Babylon. It may be observed that all the tools used here evoke the ancients’ vividness, ἐν?ργεια.” This is true of the Landmark Herodotus as well, where one experiences increasing tension as the massive Persian forces in 480 BC inexorably advance toward the clash at Thermopylae and the naval battles off Artemision and Salamis, gathering strength every step of the way through recruitment of local manpower.

I intended to alert readers to a serious problem with one of the paperback editions of these volumes, but am now unable to find the information. I distinctly recall while shopping for them on Amazon that one of the paperbacks—I think it was Xenophon’s Hellenika—had an unusually high number of negative reviews, all for one reason—cheap binding. Reader after reader reported that the book quickly came apart in normal use. These included students and teachers in classes in which it was used as a text, who said it happened to almost everyone in the class.

This is a serious issue, but either the complaints have been removed or I was looking at a different page than I can find now. It seemed deeply ironic to have such meticulous scholarship torpedoed by shoddy bookbinding.

While few important ancient classics are available in Landmark’s extremely useful format, or apparently ever will be, those that are are well worth owning and reading. I began with Herodotus, the most important of the available authors to me, until the counterintuitive thought struck me that the books might go out of print. I then bought the others, save for Xenophon’s Hellenika, which I think was the one with serious manufacturing defects noted by multiple readers.

Strassler says he is surprised that others have not copied his approach. Indeed, the method would be extremely helpful in many, many areas—and eras—of European history and literature, from the dawn of writing through the 19th century. Each generation and every individual begins de novo. We do not automatically know the past. This is especially true today, when a hostile culture systematically deprives us of it, attacking, belittling, lying about, and even erasing it: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!”

Volumes such as these make it easier for people to engage in a meaningful way with those who went before, and to understand who they—and we—really are.

The Landmark Series

IN PRINT:

The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Robert B. Strassler ed., newly-revised Richard Crawley (1874) trans. (New York: The Free Press, 1996)

The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, Robert B. Strassler ed., new trans. by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007)

The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Robert B. Strassler ed., new trans. by John Marincola (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009)

The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, James Romm ed., new trans. by Pamela Mensch (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010)

FORTHCOMING:

Julius Caesar

Polybius

Xenophon, Anabasis

 

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